Hear from more LGBTQ clergy, including Ariel Naveh, on the Keshet blog.
Reading Ariel Naveh’s two-part story on the Keshet blog about being an openly gay rabbinical student, I remembered my own experience eight years ago as I prepared for ordination from the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. I wondered what my life would be like as a rabbi who was gay. I stayed up late at night and worried: Would I get a job? I wondered would I find a place that would accept my partner and offer her the same benefits of an opposite-sex spouse. I wondered if I could even make it safely through rabbinical school. There were so many things to ponder I barely had time to consider what it meant to actually be a gay rabbi.
When I applied for and accepted my first pulpit in the summer of 2006, I was closeted. The senior rabbi, the head of the search committee and the president of the synagogue all were in the dark about it, and I was scared: scared of getting found out, scared of losing the many opportunities which had been laid before me. But I had no choice. At the time, and until 2007, the Conservative Movement did not allow openly gay students to be ordained, so my sexuality and the life I had built with my girlfriend at the time were hidden behind closed doors. I had a plan in mind: I would get settled, prove myself, and then come out six months into the job and share my life with the community.
You know what they say about the best laid plans. I started working and almost immediately quickly realized the community was one of tremendous honesty and kindness. I couldn’t keep secrets if we were to have a truly holy relationship as rabbi and community. So I came out, first to the senior rabbi and president and then very quickly to everyone else, and I mean everyone: the board, the staff, the religious school volunteer board. I had endless conversations about my sexuality. Looking back on it now, it might have been overkill, but at the time it was what everyone felt was necessary to be forthright and address whatever “issues” people had with the now openly gay rabbi.
It was, I think, the last time I spoke so much about my sexual identity. I remember when I told the then-president of the synagogue, who has since become a trusted friend and wise advisor, over lunch and without missing a beat she said, “Oh, okay – can we order the sushi now?” And that is kind of how I have always felt about this issue: Can we stop talking about this and get back to studying and teaching Torah, creating holy moments at your wedding, bar mitzvah, or when I share the journey at the end of someone’s life? Might we get back to doing the business of helping each other grow in Judaism and learning, in holiness and meaning?
Not everyone was happy with me, of course. A community member once interrupted my Talmud class to tell me I wasn’t talking enough about how hard it was to be gay, chiding me that I had a responsibility to help other gay people by being more vocal. Then there were the other folks – the ones who did not understand why my girlfriend and I held hands as we left services on Shabbat morning—why did I need to be so public? Too gay, not gay enough, either way I was always a troublemaker.
When I am teaching Torah, I am trying share sacred wisdom as a rabbi, period. When I am standing under the huppah with a couple as they join together in a holy union, I am trying to usher in Judaism sacred joy and sanctity. When I sit by a bedside as someone lays dying, I am trying to offer the tradition’s wisdom of comfort and care. I am being a rabbi – a sacred teacher of wisdom, a vessel of Divine holiness and care none of which have anything to do with being gay or straight.
Yet from a young age, I felt different. It took me almost two and a half decades to figure out why. Simply put, being gay feels to me (and has always felt to me) like being a round peg in a square hole – trying to fit in and sometimes squeezing, but never making the perfect fit. In my professional life I feel treated fairly and equally, but I live in a world where I understand what it means to not quite fit in. I know what it’s like to look around and wonder if you have an ally in the room, and what it means to be in a deep and narrow strait and not be sure if you have the strength to break forth to freedom. Perhaps this is where being a gay rabbi is really as much about my sexual identity as my profession – no one has to be able to prove to me how painful it is to be an outsider. I know it from the inside and out and as such have always tried to use this round peg to help others find their place in the wisdom and holiness of Jewish life.
I have a teacher and mentor who taught me the phrase, “it’s a Torah world.” She was trying to explain to us that in each day there is holy wisdom to be found in the world we live in, real life and everyday existence. Jewish wisdom can help people connect not only to the tradition with great sacredness but also to life’s most mundane moments in the deepest of ways. She was so right. It is a Torah world and in that world of holy seeking, being gay has nothing and everything to do with the kind of rabbi I strive to be.
I was a stickler, emphasis on past tense. I complained about it a lot – why was everyone always late to everything? From social events to work commitments I found it rude and irritating – truth be told still do. It was, maybe even still is my biggest pet peeve, it drives me crazy.
Today the only difference is I am in violation, I am late…often. Usually, it is only a couple of minutes but still, someone’s time is their time. I asked a dear old friend today (when I was late meeting her for our weekly study session) “when did I become a late person?” She said, without missing a beat, “when you had kids.” I smiled and thought can I really blame them?
As a relatively new parent I still feel like a rookie but what I have learned is as a parent no matter what you do it never feels like enough. I try and beat them to the morning punch and prepare the night before, ahead of the game I think. Until the early morning comes and the hectic nature of those wee hours get the better of me. It might be the syrup someone purposely spilled because it seemed fun or simply a need for more time with being held. No matter the reason the minutes seem to tick away from me at a rapid pace—I have to be out the door at 7:45 at the latest and inevitably I am holding a teary eyed toddler at the door handing him off to the babysitter at 7:50 and I don’t even work full time, just a few part time gigs.
The kicker is really it is not enough. Not enough stories, not enough silliness on the floor, not enough patience for their antics or their challenging boundary pushing. There is not enough time in the world to give them what we want to give them or what we want to give our spouses let alone ourselves. The nature of our lives during these heady and overwhelming days of raising kids means falling short over and over again. And really this isn’t only a problem of parenting but of life and relationships, we Jews say “Dayeinu”— ”it would have been enough,” it should be enough but in this way life sometimes it is the reverse—”Lo Dayeinu” (it is not enough); not enough quality time, not enough energy spent on our relationships, not enough patience and growth.
So we are late for meetings, impatient with our children and tired with our spouses. If we try and create a spiritual practice out of our lives, out of parenting what are we to do if we want to elevate these very mundane challenges?
The rabbis teach that within the ark containing the tablets given to Moses containing the Ten Commandments was also the set Moses broke when he came down the mountain to find the people worshiping the golden calf. Why? Perhaps it is because the rabbis understand the nature of family life – we always carry with us the inevitable failures, the fallings short, the moments when we give in to our own pet peeves because we have no choice. We carry those with us alongside the triumphs.
In the end I will probably be late again tomorrow but I am hopeful even while carrying my broken tablets alongside my successes. In the meantime I carry the words of the Irish poet Samuel Beckett once wrote, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better” – tomorrow this Ima and Rabbi will try to fall again better.